Environmentalists, Others Celebrate Court Ruling Upholding LA Clean Truck Program

An alliance of U.S. truck drivers and environmental, labor, community, faith, civil rights and public health groups cheered the news that a federal judge on Thursday lifted an injunction and upheld the Los Angeles Clean Truck Program in its entirety. The coast-to-coast coalition of more than 125 organizations has advocated for L.A.’s award-winning model, and has led the fight to protect and replicate it nationwide for several years.

Supporters of clean port programs, which are credited with cutting diesel pollution by 70 percent, say congressional action is needed to protect them from future legal challenges. Environmentalists and others would like to expand the L.A. model to clean up other ports around the country.

The Los Angeles Clean Truck Program took 2,000 of the most polluting trucks out of service at the Port of Los Angeles, replacing them with nearly 6,000 new, clean vehicles operating at the port. The Port of Los Angeles is the nation’s busiest.

However, the American Trucking Associations, the Washington trucking lobby, obtained an injunction 16 months ago, unraveling much of the nation’s most successful program to slash heavy-duty diesel truck emissions by shifting the financial burden of cleaner commerce off the capitalized companies and onto low-wage workers they contract with. The industry special interest group has already announced it will file an appeal to continue its legal assault.

Judge Christina Snyder of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California earlier this year ruled key parts the program illegally regulate interstate commerce, citing provisions within the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA).

Snyder this week reversed that injunction, allowing the clean trucks program to move forward.

“Judge Snyder’s ruling affirms that the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, City Council, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got it right from the beginning in enacting an economically sound, environmentally sustainable program to reduce deadly diesel truck pollution and create good green jobs in our communities,” says Tom Politeo, a San Pedro resident and representative of the Sierra Club, also party to the case along with the Coalition for Clean Air.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates 87 million Americans now live and work in port regions that violate federal air quality standards where diesel soot-induced asthma, cancer and respiratory illnesses rates are disproportionately high. In 2008, Los Angeles officials sought a local solution to the market failure that has earned U.S. seaports the notorious reputation as “the place where old trucks go to die.”

Lax oversight allows some 5,500 port trucking companies nationwide to skirt tax laws and push all the costs of doing business onto their drivers by misclassifying them as independent contractors. Accordingly, academics put average driver take-home pay at $10 to $11 an hour making it no surprise that this workforce can only afford to haul in the oldest, most decrepit clunkers. Ninety-five percent of the nation’s 110,000 port trucks fail to meet current EPA emission standards.

Los Angeles’ attractive financial incentives leveraged $600 million in private investment from both small and large trucking companies to put 6,600 clean diesel and alternative fuel vehicles in service until the trucking association blocked the program in court.

The industry’s vigorous opposition compelled Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and more than 65 House co-sponsors to back HR 5957 to clarify federal transportation law so local governments can fully implement market-based solutions that will protect public health, spur green job creation, and pave the way for vital port infrastructure projects.

Nadler called the ruling a “very welcome development” in the “longstanding efforts to modernize the nation’s truck fleets and reduce diesel pollution. Judge Snyder’s decision is good for the environment and good for labor, and paves the way for the implementation of other clean truck programs around the country. Now we must pass my legislation, the Clean Ports Act, in order to bring federal law up to date with the current realities of our ports and the needs of U.S. truck drivers, and to ensure that future legal challenges do not impede environmental progress.”

A Long Beach, Calif., mother of a child who suffers from respiratory illness due to pollution agreed.

“This victory inspires us to keep fighting for a permanent fix at the federal level. Ports around the country should not have to waste so much time and money to fight industry bullies that want to continue evading responsibility,” says Silvia Martinez. “Our fight will continue until Congress passes the Clean Ports Act of 2010, because mothers like me shouldn’t have to show our 3 year olds how to use an inhaler.”

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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